Ana Catarina Pinho
ARCHIVO. As for some background information, what drove you to work with photography?
MAX. Since I was a child I am passionately interested in art. I think I was thirteen when I first saw photos by Mapplethorpe, Avedon and Robert Frank. I thought they were the coolest thing on earth and started saving for a Nikkormat. It is the most desired and beautiful camera I ever had.
A. You often express that discontent and disbelief make our society reside in a constant state of present time. As easily seen everyday, the general understanding of the world works through a mediated knowledge of what’s around us. How do you think this daily flood of images can impact on our way of thinking and the general conception of reality?
M. Images are very powerful. Their power has fascinated humans since the beginning of history. Plato believed they were very negative for the republic and the second, and longest, commandment in Exodus 20 forbids the creation of images.
The arguments against and in favor of images in the Second Council of Nicaea, in 787 ac, illustrate extremely well the ambiguous status of images in the human psyche. Iconoclasm deeply influenced the Protestant Reformation and has survived as an intellectual attitude until today. Martin Jay’s wonderful text “Downcast Eyes” surveys contemporary philosophy and its very complex relationship with the visual.
Where does this power come from I don’t know but a good starting point to think about it is a book that has had a tremendous influence on me, that is W.J.T. Mitchell’s “What do pictures want?”
A. In such a state of flux, what do you think photography has become today?
M. There is no photography’s essence. Like everything else, its use, its technology and its purpose changes with time. If we have learned something in the last 30 years is that the “ontological” discussions don’t take you very far.
It is a bit like writing. One person writes a business contract and another writes a poem and nobody gets confused on which is which. For me the interesting question is how photography links into the discussions of the art world today and, more specifically, how it should evolve in order to avoid becoming a reactionary, boring or antiquarian medium.
A. In this sense, what do you think is necessary to make an image work?
M. Work for whom? The issue at stake for an image today is why it should exist at all, why is it relevant and what are the questions it raises.
A. I believe you’d agree that fiction is our reality, although it appears to relate to opposite meanings. In your work, how do you find a balance in representing reality through fictional constructions?
M. There is no binary opposition between reality and fiction. A wonderful book by Noah Harari explains it well. Humans are the only animals that create fictions and this peculiarity has been the main driver of our evolution. Fiction is our reality.
A. In all of your Propositions you reflect over society and often highlight unconfortable questions. How did the audience react to your work?
M. The “audience” does not exist. All-encompassing concepts are not productive. I do what I do for a bunch of friends and acquaintances that share my concerns and interests. And I feel very happy if new people get interested and join the discussion.
A. In your work you give reference to several aspects such as transparency, realism, monocular perspective, and also documentary referenciality. Regarding this last point, could you share your opinion about the actual state of documentary photography vs the mediated formulas of photojornalism, all of which obviously contribute to the contemporary interpretation of reality.
M. The idea behind documentary photography is that the “machine-automatic-indexical” nature of photography makes it the ideal medium for the document and the truth. This in fact was a strong argument for its rejection as an “art medium”. Post-moderns, led by Rosalind Krauss, thought that this characteristic was precisely what made of it the prefect tool to achieve an art that was un-authored and un-subjective. The type of art that they were promoting. Indexicality was the concept of the time.
My point is that both were wrong. Photography is strongly authored and subjective. The perfect tool for simulacra. Looks and feels like objective but it is not. The only way to create objective documents through photography could be by expelling the photographer out of the picture, that is, by fully exploiting its machine-indexical characteristics. And this is why so much recent photographic work, that perceived this contradiction, has explored the implications of surveillance cameras, Google street stills, etc.
But my argument is that even this “automatic” work has a strong ideological trait. And one basic reason is because the structure of the camera itself, by replicating the linear perspective fiction developed in traditional painting in the Renaissance, promotes and sustains a Eurocentric concept of art and truth. Linear perspective (camera oscura) was a great technical achievement of European art but we must remember that it is an exception in time and geography. Only 400 hundred years in, say 10,000 years of art history? And was never used in Asian nor in African art. Why should we place this “European visual technique” closer to truth than other “ways of seeing”?
My final point is that if we recognize fully the expressive potential of the digital we can move away from linear perspective and the indexical fallacy to create a new photographic vision that better expresses contemporaneity.
A. You say you’re working on a non-traditional photo-essay concept. Could you share some thoughts about it?
M. The photo-essay is an old concept that I believe started with the work of Ernst Junger in the 1930s. I love it but I am not sure it works, as it requires an intimate relationship and familiarity with the concepts behind in order to make sense of it. This or it becomes as simple as a pamphlet. But I guess this is part of its exciting challenge, the balance between complexity and simplicity.
A. Another interesting point of your work is the sense of photography physicality and how you work on giving meaning to the surface of the picture. Can you share more about this process?
M. Traditional photography’s surface is meaningless. One is supposed to skip it and focus on the icon, on what is going on. This is a crucial difference with painting where the surface is of great significance. There is an extraordinary essay by Isabelle Graw that discusses the peculiar nature of painting’s indexicality.
I am very interested in how digitalization will affect our physical world and how is promoting the blurring of art mediums specificities. I believe digitalization is allowing for a renewed dialogue between photography and painting by making us think about the potentiality of a “virtual-object”. This is one of my main obsessions today and working around photography’s surface seems a good place to start.
A. In your work Propostitions I keep thinking of Deleuze’s ‘the image of thought’ and its multiplicities forms of representation and interpretation, particularly in the series “Heads will Roll”, where you add multiple layers of information, creating a stronger and complex image, pointing to tensions between humanity and the contemporary uses of image and technology. Where do you think all this tensions will lead us?
M. “Heads will Roll” is about the end of the world as we know it. It is about today’s transitional period in which we are moving from an industrial-based economy to a bio-cybernetic society. This transition will not happen without much suffering. This coming post-humanist society raises major dilemmas for politics, economics and ethics. The scientific and engineering community is very conscious of this and significant discussions around its implications are going on.
There is no way one can understand the contemporary world without reflecting about technology and artists should engage in those discussions. One of art’s roles in society is certainly not giving answers but questioning dominant narratives, perhaps by opening “small windows” through which new worlds can be imagined. As Shelley said, and it is a quote I love, “poets are the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present”.
A. Plans for a new Proposition series?
M. “Propositions” was a personal process of breaking away from traditional photography, or better said, from conceptually analog photography. Breaking away from realism, linear perspective and the document. This is done, I have burnt my boats and there is no way back and as a consequence there will be no more “Propositions”. But the underlying concern, which is reflecting upon technology’s implications in our world, continuous to be paramount in my work.
I am currently working on two projects. The first one is about finance as the site where the dialectics of real-fictional become more acute and a second about the end of nature.
A. Given your professional and academic experience, what’s your opinion on the photography education today? Would you give any advice to your generation of artists?
M. Education is important today but I am not sure up to what degree makes you a better artist. There is an argument by which education does not help in art creation and asserts that “Picasso did not read a single book in his life”, which might be true. But education does not necessarily mean studying difficult books on aesthetics and I always thought of the “noble-brute-but-great-artist” to be a charming fairytale.
I am nobody to give advice. Each one has to find his own way, as there is no “right” path in life. I try to see, read and listen to anything that might be helpful, interesting or enjoyable and I am passionately interested in the world. This makes one’s life much more fun!